‘Cultural appropriation’ is really cultural appreciation
In the dark little world of the ‘cultural appropriation’ fanatic, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery – rather, it is a racist aberration that must be condemned and cleansed from society.
Last week, the acclaimed fashion designer Marc Jacobs fell afoul of this helter-skelter logic when his New York Fashion Week show featured models whose hair had been styled in colourful dreadlocks.
To most reasonable people this would seem like nothing more than a quirky design flourish. But to the minds of the PC morality police it was the sin of cultural appropriation, and after a well-publicised row erupted on Jacobs’s Instagram page, after he posted a picture of one of the dreadlocked models, he issued an apology. It wasn’t a complete capitulation to the bellyaching mob. He apologised ‘for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity’, yet also made a point of saying that he does not racially discriminate and believes in ‘freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself’.
How he chose to handle the matter was totally up to him, but I wish he hadn’t said sorry at all. The slightest flinch only emboldens these people, and they are never satisfied. The best way to stand up for free expression is to remain firm and defiant in the face of the apology-seeking outrage culture, which only grows fat on the apologies of its targets. It is a form of power-seeking that tries to impose strict ideological conformity by shaming and attacking people rather than participating in a tolerant exchange of opposing ideas.
In any case, I am deeply sceptical of the whole concept of cultural appropriation.
It hardly needs saying, but it’s pretty obvious that this so-called appropriation is actually appreciation. It usually signifies a deep admiration of another culture’s aesthetics. I have been to a wedding where a non-Indian bride wore a sari. I have known plenty of travellers who have gone to an African country and had their hair braided. When I was in Japan, I saw a lot of teenagers playing baseball and wearing American-style sports jackets. There is nothing wrong with any of this. It is all done in a spirit of curiosity and openness towards different cultures.
The term ‘appropriation’ implies something a lot more sinister: like looting Palmyra’s ancient artefacts and selling them on the black market. The a-word should not be applied to imaginative, empathetic people who are inspired by the beauty of other cultures.
It would be a catastrophe if the free flow of culture and self-expression were to be stifled because people are afraid of the bogus charge of cultural appropriation. The only ones who would be strengthened by that would be the arrogant, social-media-stalking commissars who vulgarise art and creativity with their miserable political agendas.
They should be treated with the complete disregard they deserve. As the saying goes, ‘Never apologise. Never explain. Just get the thing done and let them howl.’
Candice Holdsworth is the founder and editor of Imagine Athena.